THE most illuminating thing that I have read so far about the war in Ukraine is an interview in Politico with Dr Fiona Hill, the British-born Russia expert and former US presidential adviser. It was not cheering.
Speaking to Maura Reynolds, Dr Hill says: “In one of the last meetings between Putin and Trump when I was there, Putin was making the point that: ‘Well you know, Donald, we have these hypersonic missiles.’ And Trump was saying, ‘Well, we will get them too.’ Putin was saying, ‘Well, yes, you will get them eventually, but we’ve got them first.’ There was a menace in this exchange. Putin was putting us on notice that if push came to shove in some confrontational environment that the nuclear option would be on the table.”
Asked whether she thinks that President Putin would use a nuclear weapon, she replies: “The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t? He’s already used a nuclear weapon in some respects. Russian operatives poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium and turned him into a human dirty bomb and polonium was spread all around London at every spot that poor man visited. He died a horrible death as a result.”
She continues: “The Russians have already used a weapons-grade nerve agent, Novichok, for certain twice. Once in Salisbury, England, where it . . . killed a British citizen, Dawn Sturgess, because the assassins stored it in a perfume bottle which was discarded into a charity donation box where it was found by Sturgess and her partner. There was enough nerve agent in that bottle to kill several thousand people.
“So if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn’t use something that he’s got that is unusual and cruel, think again. Every time you think, ‘No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would. And he wants us to know that, of course.”
Most of the things that I have read seem to assume that there will be an outcome to the war in a couple of weeks or months, and then some kind of normality will resume. There won’t be, and it won’t.
THE Daily Telegraph gave a great deal of space to a book plug by the presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme, Justin Webb, which was also an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which both men revealed more of themselves than is customary. “His childhood sounds worse than mine,” Webb writes. “He had to endure physical violence and the depredations of parental alcoholism. My early years were steeped not in alcohol but in loneliness. My stepfather was deeply mentally ill, pouring milk down the sink when he thought it poisoned, hearing voices telling him he was inferior. . . ‘Did you talk to yourself?’ I ask him.
“‘A lot,’ he says. ‘I told myself stories endlessly. I would retreat to my room and play by myself. Endless trains going round one track. Plastic model soldiers and a cardboard fort.’
“Inside ourselves, those of us who grew up strange, we cannot comprehend the rest of you, even our own families. The Archbishop has five children: ‘They’re the most wonderful bunch of people. But I look at them and I think, “What does it feel like?” I have no idea. I can’t put myself in their shoes for a second.’”
What makes this more complicated is that, as a result of their upbringings, Justin Webb appears much more nostalgic than Justin Welby for the 1970s and its lost social order. But Webb is also surprisingly serious about Christianity.
One is used to the humblebrag confession of atheism: “I wish I could believe” (but, of course, I am too intelligent and too honest to be taken in as you are). But Webb does a much more honest and humble version. “I would like to be religious, in the sense of belonging to something larger than myself, swept along with a sense of purpose that I need not grasp but whose power I could feel. . . You can parrot trite stuff about love conquering all and forgiveness and contrition being vital, but someone or something has to do the forgiving. For an atheist like me, there is a hole in this place. . . I want to be rescued. I am sure of that, though by whom I am less sure.”
This is almost Graham Greene — at least, it is close to the end of The Quiet American, when the journalist narrator, who wins back the girl, arranges for his rival, a CIA officer responsible for the murder of civilians, to be murdered in turn by the Vietcong. He has everything he wants, and wishes only that there was someone to whom he could say sorry. Perhaps a sense of the tragic is creeping back into public life, even here.